Thursday, May 18, 2017

Class of 2017 Celebrates Commencement Amid Themes of “Rising Up”

(Left to Right: President David Hall, Keynote Speaker Iyanla Vanzant,
Honorary Degree Recipient Ruth Elma Thomas) 

The University of the Virgin Islands Class of 2017 took their first steps into the future at Commencement Ceremonies, which were held on May 11, on St. Croix, and on May 12, in the Sports and Fitness Center on the St. Thomas Campus. Themes of rising up and persevering in the face of adversity were embedded in every aspect of the event from President David Hall’s welcome, to Iyanla Vanzant’s keynote address, to Monel Marcellin’s class speaker remarks, to select interviews with students and alums. “

Keynote Speaker, Iyanla Vanzant
The thought that got me through college as a single mother on welfare with three children by three different fathers was that there is nothing to fear,” said Keynote Speaker Iyanla Vanzant, a commanding author, inspirational speaker, television personality and healer of people. “Fear comes from what you tell yourself about yourself, and whether or not you believe it. Fear can hold you back, but only if you let it.”

Vanzant, who helps people by encouraging them to engage in deliberate thinking, shared a narrative of her personal history peppered with insightful and amusing anecdotes. She then suggested to the graduates that they tackle the future by arming themselves with a kind of personal intelligence apparatus. But in the world according to Vanzant, CIA stands not for Central Intelligence Agency, but rather for Character, Integrity and Appreciation.

“Developing your unique character means making sure that what you do is in line with who you are,” she said. “Integrity is about making sure that what you think, feel, do and say are all in alignment. Do what you know is right even when nobody is looking.” Vanzant continued, “Appreciate yourself, along with those who came before you who endured horrible things so that you could be here today. Appreciate your parents. Whoever they are, they did the best they could.”

Toward the end of her masterful and inspiring address, Vanzant encouraged the class of 2017 to wake up every morning knowing that they had the opportunity to make a new choice. She urged them to “… get focused, get purposeful, claim it, and speak it as though it is.”

President David Hall
President Hall’s welcome address focused on the idea of three magical rivers flowing together in 2017 – the 100th anniversary of the Virgin Islands as a US territory; the 55th anniversary of UVI; and the four-year journey of the class of 2017 – all contributing to a fertile landscape in which these graduates, like the University itself, will continue to rise up despite challenges and disappointments; hardships and losses. So it was with fitting continuity that shortly after being introduced by Dr. Hall, Monel Marcellin, the class speaker on the St. Thomas Campus, shared the stories of several classmates who’d managed to earn degrees despite unplanned pregnancies, abject poverty, family separations and other privations.

Marcellin, who was accepted by six law schools, invoked the famous Mother Teresa quote to support her pride and ongoing faith in her classmates, and in herself: “To those who have done so much with so little for so long, you are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

St. Thomas Class Speaker Monel Marcellin
Marcellin went on to thank the UVI faculty and staff, along with family members and friends of the graduates, for “believing in us when we could not believe in ourselves.” She expressed gratitude about having been invited to “step outside her comfort zone” so that she and her classmates could “celebrate being alive and present.”

In closing, Marcellin suggested to her classmates that they use their cell phone cameras to focus on what is important; capture the moment; and develop the things that you wish to carry into the next phase of your journey. She then said to the class of 2017: “We have brains in our heads and feet in our shoes. After today, we can go anywhere we want.”

The UVI Class of 2017 are all extraordinary products of a unique journey. Select the following links to read a few inspiring stories that offer some insight into the character of that cohort, and into the great diversity and resilience of the student body at large.

21 Year Journey From Teen Mom to College Graduate

First Tubist to Graduate from UVI Pursues Educational Leadership Role

A Graduate Who Leaves a Legacy

UVI Entrepreneur Poised to Hit the Ground Running

Dr. Frank Mills (center)
Commencement exercises are a time to embrace the future, but they also provide an opportunity to recognize the past. Specially honored this year are members of the Class of 1967 who are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation from the College of the Virgin Islands. Culled from this cohort are two of UVI’s most distinguished professors, Dr. Frank L. Mills and Dr. Simon B. Jones-Hendrickson. Following graduation, both men – originally from St. Kitts – left the Territory to earn advanced degrees but chose to return and settle into long and rewarding careers as educators and researchers.

Dr. Mills, currently the interim vice provost of the Eastern Caribbean Center Provost’s Office of Research and Public Services, never imagined that he would teach at UVI for 45 years after earning graduate degrees in geology and quantitative methods from the University of Western Ontario and Clark University. But the work was so gratifying and the growth of the University so steady that he never saw a reason to leave.

“The most rewarding thing is not just that the institution has survived,” said Mills, “but that it has survived in a way that makes it outstanding.”

Dr. Mills shared a story about a gentleman from the U.S. mainland who publically lambasted the College of the Virgin Islands, calling it a white elephant that was so unlikely to succeed that funding it was a waste of money.

“It’s hugely satisfying to me that history has proved this guy dead wrong,” said Mills.

Having worked with five different presidents, Dr. Mills referred to President David Hall as a visionary, and praised his unbridled determination to pursue growth and innovation. “Dr. Hall is not afraid to change things on the front end in order to make things happen,” said Dr. Mills, who continues to enjoy working and is therefore in no hurry to retire.

Dr. Simon Jones-Hendrickson

Dr. Jones-Hendrickson, who taught economics at UVI for more than four decades before retiring, is also taken with the various ways in which the institution has grown and evolved. He remains intensely connected to the University, and was honored by President David Hall at the Third Annual Virgin Islands Literary Festival and Book Fair on April 21, 2017.

“Simon is a creative force, a prolific author, a counselor to world leaders and a beautiful man,” said Dr. Hall. “Just like the flamboyant tree that is the symbol of his native land, he stands apart but brings people together. This ‘lit-fest’ is one of his many creations, inspirations and lasting legacies.”

Given his background as an educator and thinker, Jones-Hendrickson is prone to expressing his affection for the things he cares about through reflecting about they could be made even better. Regarding UVI, he misses the 1960’s when the college was more international, and hopes that the University will be able to attract more international students, especially from around the Caribbean, going forward.

Jones-Hendrickson would also like to see more distinguished professor chairs, a center for economic development, a University Press, and an offering of classes in intellectual property rights. “Intellectual property constitutes nine to ten percent of the gross domestic product of most countries,” he said. “That could make a big difference for the Virgin Islands.”